Rachel Dolezal’s name has been circulating around for the past week or so. Considering the timing, it’s almost perfect. Caitlyn Jenner’s stepped out of her closet. We’ve got viral videos of trans children floating around the Internet. Transgender identities have been under much scrutiny and discussion of both transgender people and culture has been entering the mainstream. So naturally, when you hear about a woman who appears to identify as “transracial” and who, on one or two other occasions, claims to relate to transgender struggles, this is like throwing seal steaks to the sharks when you consider the media.
“I identify as black”, Dolezal says. And so people ask, “How is that different than identifying as a woman?” “How is she different than what Caitlyn Jenner did?”
Rachel Dolezal, according to reports, had spent the last few years posing as a black woman and the President of her local NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington. The ruse had never come to light – at least not until parents Larry and Ruthanne Dolezal spoke out against the woman’s claims.
The allegations, that Dolezal might be lying about her own race, sparked a fierce debate over social media and the news. We’ve had terms thrown around like “transracial”. And naturally, people have been asking the same questions – isn’t that the same thing as being transgender?
It’s not the first time I’d encountered similar debates, although most of these debates had never left the borders of Tumblr-land, that land where gender can also consist of identifying as an anime character. Until now, that sort of discussion had never entered the mainstream.
Sure, novels and films have been playing around with the idea of a character (usually white), identifying as or posing as another race (usually black). The 2014 novel Your Face in Mine by Jess Row, tells the story of a white Jewish man who becomes black by way of “racial reassignment surgery”. And everyone remembers the Al Jolson film “The Jazz Singer”, where Jolson poses as a black man to perform with a jazz band. We even have the case of journalist John Howard Griffin, who explored racial tensions in the 1950s by disguising himself as black in order to see the discrimination black men faced on a regular basis first-hand, which he relates through his book Black Like Me.
But not until now have we really had a mainstream case of an individual openly identifying as someone of a different race. And then Rachel Dolezal came along. In Dolezal’s case, she claims to have identified as black from a young age. In fact, she’s openly declared that she ‘identifies’ with Caitlyn Jenner’s own struggles to come out of the closet in order to live a more authentic life.
I had recently gotten into a debate about Rachel Dolezal with another FTM man. We’d been debating about whether or not we should accept Rachel Dolezal, as well as her claims of identifying as black, wholesale. His argument? Of course. Hadn’t we, as a community, suffered similar accusations as what Dolezal was experiencing? Shouldn’t we accept her? Believe her?
Transracial, it also should be worth noting, is a term many adoptees use to describe themselves if adopted by a family of a different race. Their race and how they perceive their race doesn’t change- rather, it’s the concept of navigating racial differences.
In the case of Rachel Dolezal, representing herself as black is easily reversible. Should she decide to once again represent herself as white, all she needs to do is wash off the spray tan and adopt a blonde bob once again. In the case of literally everyone else and trans people, making the switch “back” to a previous identity or another one altogether isn’t so simple.
Rachel Dolezal’s case has been one based on deception. To be open about being transgender and living as oneself is the opposite of deception to me, it’s the ultimate statement of honesty. Even when a transgender person is stealth, their transition isn’t one of deception, it’s abandoning a false identity and living discreetly as themselves. A stealth trans person isn’t stealth to deceive – usually, being stealth is often for reasons of personal safety.
Dolezal, in her case, may identify as black. But she’s not engaging with what being black may entail – such as discrimination or oppression. She can easily return back to a white identity. And in fact, what she’s doing is basically blackface. Dolezal’s presentation, to me, strikes me as one
of play or the thrill of taking on a new identity.
Can one physically identify with another race? Not necessarily. Skin color is genetic. And other than the color of one’s skin and physical features, there are no differences between individuals of different races. No brain scan has been able to uncover what race someone is. A 2010 study from the Journal of Psychiatric Research (Rametti et al), however, had uncovered brain differences between men, women, and FTM individuals, showing that FTM men’s brain scans displayed a white matter microstructure pattern that showed more resemblance to a male brain than to a female brain, even before hormone treatment.
To equate Rachel Dolezal’s struggles to the struggles of the trans community is to insult the trans community. To be trans is to be authentic. And to compare Dolezal’s perceived struggles to ours is to ignore the facts that transgender individuals experience high rates of retaliation, violence and discrimination compared to other communities. You almost wish Dolezal knew what it was like to be us for a change, versus her ‘Jazz Singer’ routine.
I sympathize with Dolezal to the extent that she wanted to be an advocate for an often-marginalized community. But instead of being a dedicated ally, she became both a mockery of herself and adopted a presentation that managed to insult numerous groups in one fell-swoop.
Allies, please learn from Dolezal. Don’t appropriate another community in order to speak for them. You’ll only end up hurting the community you’re trying to speak for.